By timestaff
February 7, 2011

It’s been a bad winter for air travel.

Last week’s snowstorms were the latest unpleasant episode, resulting in the cancellation of 20,000 passenger airline flights and disrupting the plans of an estimated 700,000 travelers, according to flight-tracking firm FlightAware.

So given the possibility of further weather-related hassles in the near future — on Monday, for example, much of the central U.S. was covered by a National Weather Service “winter weather alert” — what’s an air traveler to do?

For starters, you can rebook your flight, since many airlines are have been waiving the usual fees for these changes. But Anne Banas of travel site SmarterTravel.com has other tips for people who may find themselves facing flight cancellations this season.

  • Get online. Rebooking via the Internet may prove faster than being on hold for 30 minutes waiting for a customer service representative. If the website crashes from too much traffic, you can also try using airlines’ Twitter accounts. That tactic might not always work, she says, but “Jet Blue and Delta have been good about responding.”
  • Stay put. Avoid heading to the airport unless you’ve already rebooked your flight. If you get stranded at the airport, your airline is not required to give you a hotel voucher. But if you have to stay overnight, ask for “distressed traveler” rates offered by some airport hotels. Also check with the airline to see whether it has any hotel partnerships with discounted rates. If not, try the usual online booking sites such as Hotwire, or try the new, free iPhone app HotelTonight, which lets you book last-minute rooms in certain major cities.
  • Join two lines. If you’re already at the airport, call your airline while you’re standing in line at the customer service desk, and see which one comes through faster. Keep your cell phone charger in your carry-on bag.
  • Stay warm. For flights with stops, ask if you can reroute and transfer through a southern hub such as Atlanta, Dallas, or Houston — where chances of weather delays may be slimmer — instead of major cities that typically get hit, such as Chicago or Denver. (As pre-Super Bowl snow in Texas proved last week, however, this measure won’t completely eliminate the risk of a winter weather delay.)
  • Be alerted. Most airlines can alert you via e-mail, phone, or text if there are changes to your flight, so take advantage of that service. You can typically sign up for it during the booking process, but some airlines allow you to add this preference later.

Above all, “ask quickly and be polite,” Banas advises. As frustrated as you may be, customer service representatives can be just as agitated in these situations, and cordial behavior may help you get what you want.

Got any other good advice? Let us know below.

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